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New Zealand mosque massacre fueled by social media hate speech
March 15, 2019, 2:28 pm

A screen grab of the entrance to one of the mosques from the livestream’s first few seconds of the Christchurch, NZ massacre of Muslims

The mass murder of Muslims in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques today serves as a grim reminder of the dangers of unchecked social media exchange.

Those who plotted and executed the attack which killed at least 49 Muslims worshipers could not have done so without inspiration and support from other extremist groups on social media and other online networks.

Despite the best efforts of networks like Facebook and Twitter, to name a few, the internet has become an inescapable breeding ground for the spread of anti-immigrant, fascist, neo-Nazi, xenophobic and extremist groups which have become all too comfortable using social media platforms to indoctrinate the vulnerable and economically pliable.

The irony is that the internet and social media were meant to establish new public spaces which provided opportunity for the voiceless to be heard. In many cases, this has been true.

But far more ferocious has been the pace with which hate groups have spread their manifestos of murder around the world.

Hate speech is the use of divisive narratives to dehumanize and demonize the other.

It is designed to incite to fear and hatred of race, group, ethnicity, origin, religion, creed, gender and sexual orientation.

That is exactly what encouraged the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. The 46-year-old attacker Robert Bowers, an advocate of white nationalism, killed 11 Jewish worshipers.

Bowers was groomed and influenced by conservative radio in the US railing against immigrants and later contributed anti-Semitic diatribes online.

The attacker in New Zealand knew how social media worked and the far reach of hate speech. He wore a helmet with a camera live streaming a first-person view of the havoc he unleashed on the New Zealand Muslim worshipers; there is an uncanny resemblance to first-person shooter video games.

The 28-year-old Australian attacker, who was apprehended by Christchurch police, left behind an 87-page manifesto spewing anti-immigrant, Islamophobic diatribes.

Both his live stream – which showed him executing the wounded and injured in cold and calculated manner – and manifesto were widely disseminated in the few hours since the mosque shootings.

New Zealand police immediately contacted Facebook who in turn removed the videos and any comments supporting the attack. The killer’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were also taken down, but the video can be found online – the more it is viewed, algorithms being what they are, the more likely it can be found.

The damage is in the long-term.

Just as the suicide bombings and attacks filmed and distributed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other extremist groups are used to recruit followers, so too is the mosque shooting live stream and manifesto.

This is not a novel mechanism of propaganda, however.

Western countries have in previous years been either unwilling or unprepared to acknowledge the rise in hate speech in their countries for fear of shaking that enshrined pillar of libertarianism called freedom of speech.

As they now experience the rude awakening to the dangerous spectra of hate speech online, it is sad that this was given impetus only following the election of a US president who spoke freely and uncontrollably in language that often times was alluded to by racist and xenophobic groups as the ammunition they required to carry out their nefarious agenda against minorities and ‘the other’.

The 21st Century, sadly, has seen a perfect storm of historic events that have helped hate speech grow like a cancer.

Just four years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a global recession raised unemployment numbers in Europe and as economic prosperity dwindled there was an inversely proportional function which gave rise to racism.

The growing racism and neo-Nazism in many European countries was further exacerbated by the backlash against the desperate rush of Middle Eastern and North African refugees fleeing deconstructed and dysfunctionaln nations that had crumbled precisely due to Western intervention.

There could have been no better meeting of different circumstances in a perfect recipe that would give rise to a distrust and suspicion of immgrations.

And where better to express this distrust and hatred for the foreigner than online.

With the growth of social interaction and integration online, hate speech found a best friend in fake news. And together they work very successfully to radicalize youth.

A recent UN report showed that ISIL foreign fighters are likely to be young, disadvantaged economically and educationally, and from a marginalised background.

It is in this marginality that hate speech resonates … the disenfranchised now find common ground, a grouping and a sense of belonging.

The hate speech redirects their angst and shows them that they are not alone. This is parallel to the hate speech used by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-immigrant groups in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

Remember Anders Behring Breivik? In 2011, Breivik – a right-wing Norwegian extremist – set off a car bomb targeting the country’s prime minister and then attacked a youth camp hosting many immigrant participants. He killed a total of 77 people.

Prior to his attacks, he disseminated his militant manifesto under the title 2083: A European Declaration of Independence in which he expressed his anti-Islam and anti-immigration views.

It is likely that a link exists between Breivik’s manifesto and the Christchurch attacker.

In September 2017, the London-based Policy exchange think tank published a series of surveys about what it called a “net war” between radical groups using online media to spread hate to recruit young initiates on the one hand, and governments and internet companies on the other.

According to the survey, 75 per cent of respondents said that internet companies should create protocols to find and delete hate speech.

Since then, there has been momentum toward restricting the spread of hate speech and recruitment videos, but this is done individually from internet service provider to different nations. A clear-cut policy adopted by all is still out of reach.

It is time for a forum of world leaders to stand up and end the language of hate, and to work closely with online platforms to implement immediate concrete measures to bar the spread of extremist agenda.

This is absolutely vital – and should be a shared responsibility on a global scale – because the dangers of social media radicalization can ultimately unravel the great potential of online engagement and threaten access to information, freedom of expression and on-line privacy as governments bend ethical and human rights considerations under the sheer weight of hate speech’s reach.

By Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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